Simona Halep picked up a racket at the age of four, then spent almost every day over the next two decades playing tennis because the sport gave her enjoyment. Enthralling fans was simply a by-product.
But when she went from being the hunter to the hunted, with millions of strangers suddenly willing her to win, the petite Romanian found herself unprepared for the weight of expectation.
"This is my first difficult period after two years (of playing at the top of the WTA Tour)," the world No. 3 told The Straits Times yesterday.
After a stellar 2014 that included a first Grand Slam final at the French Open and a career-high ranking of No. 2, she was unexpectedly eliminated early in Paris and at Wimbledon this year, falling to lower-ranked players in the second and first rounds respectively.
"Everyone now wants to beat you because you're at the top," she said. "I was in the same situation before. When I played against top players, it was like I had nothing to lose and I just wanted to show my best tennis."
PRESENTED BY SC GLOBAL
- When: Oct 23-Nov 1
- Where: Singapore Sports Hub
- Who: Top eight singles players and doubles teams of the season
- Tickets: Start from $16.90, from Sports Hub Tix
- Fringe festival
• Fan Zone:WTA player-fan engagements and tennis-themed activities
• Player practice sessions
• WTA Legends Classic: Former greats like Martina Navratilova and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario will be competing
• WTARising Stars Tournament: Features emerging players from the region
• Ladies Day at the Tennis: Champagne brunch with WTAchief executive officer Stacey Allaster and Navratilova
• Singapore Tennis Evening at Marina Bay Sands: Gala event to celebrate the annual achievements of the Tour's best
Halep was in Singapore yesterday to help launch this year's BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global. She was a finalist on her debut last year, losing to world No. 1 Serena Williams.
It was her meteoric rise to the top - Halep broke into the top 50 in 2012 but quickly went on to win six WTA titles in 2013, earning that year's Most Improved Player award - that gave her little time to adjust to the stratospheric pressures of being a top player.
Said Halep: "Last year I (had) my biggest results at Grand Slams, (and) it's not easy to manage this when you're new there.
"I was a bit down. I started to ask myself what was happening and to be honest, I had no answers."
Naturally, her confidence took a hit. But what she did not see coming was the criticism that followed - even from her own countrymen.
Soon after her first-round loss to Slovakia's Jana Cepelova at Wimbledon, Halep admitted it was "difficult" to return to Romania.
She said yesterday: "If I lose two tournaments (it) doesn't mean I've lost everything. I was a little sad about everything, but we have to accept the negative and bad things - these things make us stronger."
Halep opted not to experiment with a change of racket or strings and maintains that her change of coaches - she parted ways with fellow Romanian Victor Ionita just before Wimbledon, having started the season with him - was not because of her results.
Instead, she decided to stick to what she knew - family, friends, and the familiarity of home. A two-week break in Romania and conversations with loved ones proved to be the balm she needed.
She said: "The biggest lesson I've learnt so far this season is that I don't have to think too much about pressure. I don't have to prove anything to anyone. I just have to enjoy myself on court, enjoy my tennis.
"I achieved my results because of this 'secret'. I just have to keep that in my mind. I don't want to be scared just because I lose a few matches. I just want to continue to believe in myself, and just play tennis. I think I'll be okay."